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Chinese scientist He Jiankui

He Jiankui’s genetic adventurism might setback the progress of a valuable science

  • The creation of genetically modified babies who are said to be able to resist HIV infection flouts ethical and legal standards
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 4:09pm

Scientist He Jiankui found himself the unlikely focus of attention of the international scientific community last Monday, as he declared that he had created the first genetically modified babies in the world – more specifically, babies whose genes have been edited in a manner that prevents them from being infected by HIV.

There are two main strands of criticism that have been launched against He: the first concerns his flagrant lack of professionalism, in flouting legal and ethical standards concerning scientific research; the second revolves around more general concerns about genetic enhancement and the morality of scientifically modifying humans in ways that are “unnatural”.

Certain critics of genetic enhancement begin with the claim that it is intrinsically wrong because it allows humans to manipulate features of others that do not conform to their “natural lifespans or functions”. This objection is misguided for several reasons: firstly, there is no reason naturality should be fetishised – modern medicine, technology designed to improve our quality of life, or large-scale infrastructure are all unnatural, but it is unclear why their lack of naturality disqualifies them from being essential components of our lives today. Secondly, genetic engineering can and should be carried out to enable individuals with genetic deficiencies or diseases to lead lives comparable to others’ in the absence of the problematic gene.

It is morally counter-intuitive that an individual’s quality of life should suffer as a result of arbitrary factors beyond their control – it is neither egalitarian nor fair. Most fundamentally, “natural” is a constantly evolving concept – we would not have found vaccinations or antibiotics “natural” 80 years ago.

A more potent criticism of genetic engineering is perhaps the slippery slope argument – if we are editing out “faulty genes” now, who’s to say we will not be progressing towards a future where genetic engineering is commercialised to produce “designer babies”.

There are several issues with this criticism. The first is to note that the slippery slope can be regulated and limited by the state. The second is that it is unclear why having “designer babies” is any worse than the status quo, where parents already shape their children’s interests and futures through enrolling them into lifestyles and values they hold.

What is gene editing? Who’s doing it? And is it right?

Finally, the slippery slope argument is not an argument to do away with genetic engineering of humans altogether; it is an argument for us to engage in critical reflection and debate about how and where we should draw the lines.

While the general challenges towards genetic engineering of human babies may not stand, this conclusion does not stop us from condemning He’s research, which was conducted in a highly opaque manner, with apparently little to no oversight from his university or the government. This concern is particularly pertinent, given He’s revelation that another volunteer is pregnant with a genetically modified embryo. Volunteers currently have little to no legal recourse should the experiment go awry for them.

China says it will punish those involved in gene-edited baby project

Moreover, one of the cornerstones of scientific ethics is that the utility yielded by the experiment must be proportionate to the risks and costs involved. There are many tried-and-tested methods of treating HIV without resorting to genetic manipulation. The potential spillover harms that may follow from even one slightly misplaced gene, or an unforeseen biochemical interaction, are far too vast to render the marginal benefit worth it. In the absence of a genuine need for the experiment, He’s work appears to be little more than a vanity project.

He’s work is unrepresentative of the fact that genetic engineering of human embryos can be, in principle, both valuable and permissible. His recklessness is not only a cost to the scientific community; it may also entail a deeper setback to efforts in improving cutting-edge research about genetic enhancement.

Brian Wong is a master of philosophy student of politics (political theory) at Wolfson College of Oxford University